Going underground – the world’s coolest caves

27/10/2017 14:35

Written by Bradt Travel Guides

Niah Cave, Borneo

Niah Caves, Sarawak, Malaysia, Borneo, Asia by Selvarajan Tamil selvan, Shutterstock© Selvarajan Tamil selvan, Shutterstock

The Great Cave of Niah is enormous by any measure. The floor area of the cave has been calculated at almost 10ha, and in places, the majestic cave roof rises 75m above the rubble-strewn floor. As well as being home to multitudes of bats, darting swiftlets (their nests are the famous ingredient of Chinese bird’s nest soup) and the occasional snake, it is also the site of human occupation dating back at least 46,000 years. The richness of the deposits at Niah, and the great span of time they encompass, marks the site as one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia.

Marble caves, Puerto Río Tranquilo, Chile

Marble caves Puerto Rio Tranquilo Carretera Austral Adrian Phillips© Adrian Phillips

The glacial waters of Lago General Carrera have eroded the limestone walls surrounding this section of the lake over centuries to form unusual, Salvador Dali-esque caves. These structures appear almost to have melted into the water, supported by frozen-in-time lava-like columns which disappear into the watery base of the caves. Some of the caves are large enough for small boats to sail into them and, on a sunny day, the light reflects off the cave walls and from the relatively shallow pools at the bottom of the caves creating surreal ripple-like patterns along the walls while the water itself reflects in myriad shades of turquoise.

Cave hotel, North Wales, UK

Welsh Matterhorn Cave Cnicht UK by Phoebe Smith© Phoebe Smith/Neil S Price

A four-star cave? Surely not. But that’s exactly what you’ll discover near the foot of a peak called Cnicht in North Wales. OK, so maybe the star rating isn’t exactly official, and perhaps the beds are a little harder than you might hope and the bathroom more… al fresco. But still, if stars were awarded for location alone, the night’s accommodation that awaits you on this escapade would easily merit a confident five. Tucked in between the boulders above an unnamed lake is a collection of rocks that make up a stone hotel – or, to be more accurate, a cosy chamber that comfortably accommodates one or two people. Rugged it may be, but the view over towards what some call the Matterhorn of Wales more than makes up for it.

Al Hoota, Oman

Al Hoota Cave is one of the largest cave systems in the Middle East, with several lakes providing a home to a variety of different species of fauna. There is a wealth of stalactite and stalagmite formations in the chasms below, and the cave is also home to unusual species of pink-coloured blind fish which sense their way around the lake with feelers, as well as bats and hunter spiders. The Gulf’s only show cave, this used to be accessible only to serious cavers, requiring ropes and climbing gear to descend the 9m into the sinkhole. Now, however, it has been developed for tourism, with a visitors’ centre, a Lebanese and international restaurant called Zajal, a ticket counter, a souvenir shop, a geological museum and a railway station with an Austrian-made 36-seater train that makes a 4-minute journey along a tunnel for a distance of 2.7km into the cave.

Sof Omar Caves, Ethiopia

Sof Oman Caves Ethiopia by Ariadne Van Zandbergen© Ariadne Van Zandbergen

This vast network of limestone caverns, reputedly the largest in Africa, lies at an elevation of 1,300m in the medium-altitude plains east of Robe. It has been carved by the Web River, which descends from the Bale Highlands to the flat, arid plains that stretch towards the Somali border. Following the course of the clear aquamarine Web River underground for some 16km, the caves are reached through a vast portal which leads into the Chamber of Columns, a cathedral-like hall studded with limestone pillars that stand up to 20m high. The caves are named after Sheikh Sof Omar, a 12th-century Muslim leader who used them as a refuge, and they remain an important site of pilgrimage for Ethiopian Muslims. Their religious significance can, however, be dated back further to the earliest animist religions of the area.

Diros Caves, the Peloponnese, Greece

Diros Caves Peloponnese Greece by 	Koppi2, wikimedia commons© Koppi2, Wikimedia Commons

The Diros cave system is one of the finest in the world, with its magical combination of stone and water. Whilst they can be crowded, it is worth persevering, as the caves are truly stunning, with countless stalactites reflected in crystal clear pools of water. The tours take place on small punts, which each take about ten adults and are guided through the warren of tunnels and chambers by skilled, but usually unresponsive, ferrymen.

Vardzia, Georgia

Vardzia Georgia by roibu Shutterstock © roibu, Shutterstock

This is one of Georgia’s most impressive sights, and it’s most famous cave-city, largely because of its connections with Queen Tamar, and is a place of almost mystic importance for most Georgians. Having been in a closed border zone throughout the Soviet period, it’s now receiving plenty of visitors, at least in summer. It’s said that its name derives from ‘Ak var, dzia’ or ‘Here I am, uncle’ – Tamar’s call when lost in the caves.

Scărişoara Ice Cave, Tranyslvania, Romania

Scărişoara Ice Cave Transylvania Romania by BeradrianA close-up of the ice stalagmites © Beradrian, Wikimedia Commons

Situated right up in the northwest corner of Alba County, deep in the Apuseni mountain forests, the Scărişoara Ice Cave (Peştera gheţarul) is the biggest ice cave in Romania and a unique phenomenon in southeast Europe. The exact date when the cave was discovered is unknown, but the German geographer Adolf Schmidl mentioned the cave in 1863 and made the first map. Scientists believe that the cave was created during the Ice Age, when the mountains were covered with ice and snow. Scărişoara is a truly impressive sight as visitors enter the underground glacier at a height of 1,165m through a large sinkhole and walk on 70,000m³ of 23m-thick ice, descending 48m to two chambers at the bottom of a great abyss. The most stunning ice structures are found in the second chamber, ‘The Church’, where the pillar formations reach more than 3m high and stalactites and stalagmites shimmer eerily all around.

Għar Dalam, Malta

Ghar Dalam Birzebbuga Malta by Frank Vincentz, Wikimedia Commons© Frank Vincentz, Wikimedia Commons

This natural cave (pronounced Ar Dalam and meaning the ‘Cave of Darkness’) was one of the first places in Malta to be inhabited by man. There were people here by 5200BC and the cave gives its name to the islands’ earliest archaeological phase. The presence of these early people is known from human remains, animal bones in rubbish pits and pottery. The pots have simple geometric decoration made by etching into the wet clay and are of the same style seen in Sicily during this era, suggesting that the first Maltese came from the neighbouring island 93km away.

Caves of Gadimë, Kosovo

Limestone cave, Gadime by Attila JANDI, Shutterstock

 © Attila JANDI, Shutterstock

This large, karst limestone cave with dozens of stalactites and stalagmites of differing colours is found in the village of Gadimë which has a mixed population of Ashkali, Roma and Albanians. It was discovered in 1969 by Ahmet Diti when doing work on his house nearby and was opened to the public in 1976 after exploration by Yugoslav speleologists. The cave is 1,200–1,500m long, with a 500m section open to tourists.  


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